by Miryam Gordon -
SGN A&E Writer
KISS ME, KATE
THE 5TH AVENUE THEATRE
Through April 29
The story goes that a Broadway producer, thinking back on his memories of the great acting couple of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and their feuding ways while performing Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, decided that the headstrong couple mimicked the headstrong couple in Shakespeare's famous play. Couldn't that make a fun and funny musical? He asked writing couple Bella and Samuel Spewack to come up with a script (the 'book') and they asked Cole Porter to compose and Kiss Me, Kate was born.
If you look too closely at that script, there are moments that really don't work, but the songs are glorious and the aspects of slap-stick farce are numerous and funny. So, just don't look too hard! It's more fun that way.
The current production at The 5th Avenue Theatre is a joyous and raucous affair, gleefully helmed by Alan Paul, who ekes out every funny moment he can, both from the book and the score, and the dazzling choreography of Michele Lynch and a nimble cast. Paul, working with music director Joel Fram, puts new spins on classic songs like I Hate Men (with saucy Cayman Ilika wielding a wicked banana!), clearly meaning to slow songs down for emphasis, mostly on the jokes.
You might know that The Taming of the Shrew is about an older sister, Katherine or Kate, who is so 'shrewish' that men don't want to marry her even with a fortune in her dowry, and her younger sister, Bianca, who is ready to marry but frustrated that her father won't let her until her older sister has a husband. Petruchio shows up, ready to marry a rich woman, even if she's a shrew, and sets out to 'tame' her. These days, we squint hard at some of the messages of Shrew, though sometimes clever directors find ways of justifying a very old play with a newer aesthetic.
Similarly, the script of the 'modern' feuding couple, from 1949, also includes areas we might squint pretty hard at, as far as equality of the sexes goes. Paul does his best to imbue Lilli Vanessi (Ilika) with as much spunk and independence as he can to keep her her 'own woman.' Vanessi is divorced from her husband, acting partner, Fred Graham (Ben Davis), the producer of Shrew, who has agreed to star again with him because she's really still in love with him.
While Lilli and Fred fight their love and each other, Fred has been flirting with a pretty new star, Lois Lane (Robyn Hurder), even though she has a boyfriend of sorts, Bill (Clyde Alves). Lois is not exactly a one-man woman, as she makes clear in the classic song, 'Always True To You In My Fashion,' 'Yes, I'm always true to you, darlin', in my way.'
However, Bill is also not the best guy. He skips rehearsals to gamble and he signs a debt marker with Fred's name. So, along come First and Second Man (Richard Ziman and Allen Galli, who are the most adorable gangstahs Seattle can muster in a musical) to collect the debt. To distract them, Fred puts them on stage! (OK, just go with it, folks! I promise, it pays off!)
This production is full of swirls of color, in costuming - both 1940s styles and Elizabethan styles - by Alejo Vietti, and a deceivingly 'simple' set design by James Noone. The set seems to change effortlessly, and perfectly captures dressing rooms and back stage and on stage and outside areas without calling attention to itself, yet also bringing all kinds of colors into play.
Davis is everything you want in a leading man here, with a round, smooth voice, and the capacity to carry off the boor with a twinkle in his eye. Ilika matches him with her creamy vocals (as always I wish I could bottle her voice and smooth it on as a softener at night) and more feisty spirit and take-charge attitude than I've ever seen from her.
Alves is the quintessential dance-and-song man, most useful in the great tap and dancing sequence with Richard Peacock and Con O'Shea-Creal that can't be beat. Hurder is the break-out revelation here, with terrific vocals, and a great old-style Hollywood movie-musical manner in every dance and every 'bit.' She creates a new stereotype: the wise-cracking ditz.
Some other local musical performers are also great in key moments. Sarah Russell opens the entire musical, a hard spot to manage, with panache in 'Another Op'nin, Another Show' and with a featured dance with Ty Willis in 'Too Darn Hot.' Jeff Steitzer is fun to see when he 'becomes' Kate and Bianca's father. Matt Wolfe is funny as the beleaguered stage manager.
It's a rather complex show to pull off credibly. This production manages both the 1940s moments and the Shakespearean ones with equal ability and becomes a delightful affair.
For more information, call 206-625-1900 or go to www.5thavenue.org.
Discuss your opinions with SGNCritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters. More articles can be found at MiryamsTheaterMusings.blogspot.com.
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